Capital and Ideology: Chapter 13

In chapter 13 Piketty focuses on our current inequality regime he calls hypercapitalism and neo-proprietarian. According to Piketty, the neo-liberal movement to deregulate the financial markets, privatize public/government services and lower taxes on the wealthy directly led to this new inequality regime. Neo-proprietarian describes the resurgence of the importance of private property (did it ever leave?) and the commodification of knowledge and information. Hypercapitalism refers to the new billionaire class and the reverence we have for them as wealth creators.

In this inequality regime proprietary property becomes private property. Piketty claims that this commodification of knowledge is illegitimate because much of it was created on the foundation of government funded research and collective knowledge. Tied into this is the current myth of meritocracy where these billionaires are rich precisely because of legal and tax laws that sanction this commodification. The wealthy property owners essentially control the government through funding campaigns and owning the media makes any sort of democracy impossible. Another part of the current inequality regime is the obfuscation of financial data. Obscured financial data is always skewed to favor the rich.

I don’t see Piketty bringing up anything new here. Piketty sees the property regime as the main cause of inequality in our current state. I assume how this occurs will be the focus of the next part of the book. Ironically, I think Piketty has already disproven this argument precisely by the information he has laid out. The property regime will never be changed because they have all the power to control the political system. I think Piketty, up to this point, has done a good job at describing the history of inequality up to the present. So what? Piketty has hinted at his answer; inequality will be eliminated through more access to education and the political process. Piketty hasn’t shown how the history of inequality regimes have ‘evolved’. He takes inequality and capitalism as a given.

The force of historical change has been class struggle. Inequality is part of these struggles, but not the last word. Relationships between all people are determined by the dominant ideology. In a capitalist society the capitalist owns the modes of production and the workers forced to work. Capitalism IS the cause of inequality. More education, better policies etc. will not be an ultimate solution. Inequality will only be destroyed by destroying the system that it is built on. This point eludes Piketty. This may be reductionist, but up to this point Piketty’s book has just been another report on how shitty things are in our world. We hear about this nightmare everyday. At the outset Piketty dismisses Marxism and maintains the old tropes of the failure of communism. His solution was determined before his research project, even though he claimed the opposite. Capitalism is pure evil genius. We can have so much detailed information about how miserable most of earth’s population is and even know why, but we literally cannot see the cause. So we’ll see where Piketty goes after his fairly exhaustive history of inequality. I think we all have a pretty good idea where. Thoughts

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  1. Thanks Craig.

    I think that one of Piketty’s points here, about the privatization of knowledge, could be useful in helping to break the idolization of wealth among the majority of Americans. It is, of course, not just knowledge that is produced socially, by the enormous efforts of many people, including by tax dollars. The same is true of all sources of capitalist wealth—where would the automobile industry have been without the enormous expense of tax dollars to build roads, or the work of millions of auto-industry laborers, or thousands of researchers who developed the technology to make the internal combustion engine possible? Yet we think Ford “earned” his fortune by his genius, so it is outrageous for workers to unionize and ask for decent pay and living conditions. This is almost impossible, in my experience, to explain to most Americans. But I wonder if it might be easier to explain how the internet was created by the government with tax money and then essentially handed over to a few corporations who now run the world with it and are becoming trillionairs. Or to explain the enormous amount of scientific work, often done by poorly paid scientists in university labs at taxpayers expense, which goes into the making the huge pharmaceutical company profits. It isn’t some individual billionaire risking his fortune to produce a drug that will save mankind—it is work done at taxpayers expense over decades that is then patented by corporations run by MBAs who mostly don’t even understand the science.

    I wonder if it might be easier to convince people that capitalist wealth is not made by hard work, genius and risk taking, but by corruption, stealing, and laws meant to protect the wealthy. Every capitalist fortune is based on a crime. A lesson I learned as a child, ironically, in a book put out by Reader’s Digest about the richest men in America, which mentioned in passing the crimes and legal games they had to play to originally make their fortunes. Like Rockefeller paying people to sabotage his competitors oil rigs, etc.

    One point that if found particularly troubling Piketty’s handling here of race and gender issues. He suggests that the U.S. has had “greater difficulty building social-democracy” because of racism. I would suggest that in fact the U.S. has used racism to help fend off the threat of social democracy. Racism doesn’t come from nowhere—we aren’t born racist. We are taught racism by social policies and propaganda meant to make us focus on the threat of some dangerous other and not on the real threat of capitalist oppression.

    As for gender, well, as always he seems to think all gender experience is that of the middle 40%. He ignores the great differences in gender inequality in the lower classes, where age makes a huge difference. Working class men in their 20s do make more money than women, but by the time they reach 50 the situation has changed, and working class men largely become unemployable and uninsured (in the U.S. at least), while women tend to remain employed in relatively stable jobs often with health coverage until their sixties. This is not the same as this situation of the more affluent professional classes, and probably accounts for the marked increase in suicide and addiction among white middle-class men—something that has consistently baffled the psychological community, as this demographic has been the only one in America to have an increasing mortality rate in this century.

    I often wonder how possible it would be to enlighten this group of working class people about the real causes of their situation. I have had little success with it myself, watching middle-aged men lose their families and houses as they spend more time out of work, and always hearing them blame either women or some mythical socialists in congress for the problem.

  2. On the subject of inequality—I’m not sure if I mentioned this here before. Every day I read again in the newspaper that the US is the only “affluent” country with a high rate of death from the coronavirus. This seems to stump experts—or they blame it on the Trump administration. But it is absurd to believe the Trump administration is any more inept than the right-wing administrations in the other “affluent” countries. Was Boris’s response any better?

    What seems to be missing from the popular understanding is something Piketty does consistently point out: the US has a level of inequality more in line with the poorest nations, not the other “affluent” nations. We only seem “affluent” compared to Germany or the UK when wealth is averaged—but the majority of Americans are far more desperately poor than anyone living in those countries.

    On another note: I meant to write a post about the next chapter by this weekend, but we were without power for the last five days. We have power back now, and I will write something about chapter 14 by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

    We’re coming up to the part that I hope will prompt some more lively discussion—so if you haven’t kept up with the reading, skip ahead to part 4 of the book (you can always go back to the middle chapters later).

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